No one in their right mind desires to die, unless their desire to die for something or someone is greater than their fear of death itself. This was the case of countless thousands in the history of the Christian Church. Every page of this book breaks your heart and then shortly after challenges it. Foxe’s Voices of the Martyrs records for us a glimpse of what it cost to bring the gospel to us. You cannot help but ponder as you read it how much blood was shed just to be able to hold the Bible in your hands, reading it in the safety of your home or favorite coffee shop, feeling almost guilty at the lack of concern for the things which others gave so much for us to enjoy. Foxe begins with Steven, the first martyr in AD 34, and ends with the modern day conflicts of Cuba. I think this is a book that most of us would like to own, but have such a hard time actually opening up and reading. That said, it is a necessary read. It will challenge you in ways few other books can. It will challenge you to commit fully to Christ, as the Bible calls us to do, even unto death, and it will burn new faith into your wearied soul. Everett Piper said it best when commenting on the book stating “If you want proof that Jesus is real then hear it in the words of those who have given their all to serve Him.”.
The martyrs in Christian history put us to shame. One of the seldom told truths of the Bible is the honor and blessing it is to be called to martyrdom, and that every Christian is called to at the least expect it and live as though they already were one.
“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. John 15:20
Few speak of it, fewer still live it but many have lived to die it before us. Persecution was something the early church accepted, and even rejoiced in. Living in America under its protection from this kind of persecution makes it hard to imagine how anyone would rejoice in being killed or even hated for their faith in Jesus, but I think if we were to experience it we would understand it more. One of the men who has been influential on my life once said “Where God guides, God provides”. I believe that is true in the land of abundance and protection as well as in the land of persecution. If God allows persecution in a believers life then He will give them the faith and the strength to get through it.
There were a few stories in this book that were incredibly inspiring. One of them was of John Rogers (ca. 1500-1555), a man of great intelligence and even greater convictions. He was a graduate from Cambridge University and served as a rector at the Holy Trinity Church, located in London, England. Sadly, yet honorably, he was the first to be murdered through the bloody reign of Mary Tudor, queen of England. After encountering and befriending William Tyndale he was persuaded to the truth contained in God’s Word, and that God’s Word was the only source of that truth. These convictions were dangerous ones to have in this era, and era dominated by bloodthirsty wolves within the flock of God. What is so inspiring of this man, and others like him, is he knew what he believed on the Bible and the things that it taught, so much so that he was willing to die for his convictions on it. One of his convictions, inspired from the Bible, was that during communion the elements of sacrament did not change in substance to the actual body and blood of Christ. During his last chance to recant, words were exchanged that still beckon forth for the Christian to remain steadfast in truth.
“Will you revoke your evil opinions of the Sacrament?” the sheriff asked. “That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.” Rogers answered. “You are a heretic then.” declared the official. “That shall be known at the day of judgment.” Rogers assured him. “I will never pray for you,” the sheriff finished. “But I will pray for you,” Rogers said, moments before the flames rose.” (Foxe, pg. 126)
I can’t tell you how many times I found myself shaking my head at the atrocities done to my brothers and sisters in Christ, page after page, after page. Sometimes I would get angry and ask God to strike down the wicked, but then I would remember God’s love for people. Other times I would question God; how could He allow so much evil to be done to His servants? How could He seemingly allow so much waste of life? But God does not give us more than we can handle, or anything that is not already common to others, and He always provides a way out, even if death is that way out (1 Cor. 10:13). In reading about Bonnie Witherall (Died November 21, 2002) my question was answered about the justice of God allowing so many of His people to be martyred when Foxe wrote;
“It hinted at the reality that persecuted Christians seem to understand better than most. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings and being found worthy to be beaten, imprisoned, or even killed for His sake is not a tragedy, a punishment, or an accident. Instead, it is the greatest privilege that a Christ-follower has. Neither is such sacrifice wasted in God’s eyes, but it is rewarded in eternity with a glorious crown of life!” (Foxe, pg 279)
One of the most surprising things to me that I have read is how much more real God became to people in their persecutions. One would guess that being persecuted would cause you to doubt God’s existence, but story after story demonstrates how martyrs experienced a closeness with God that would be unknown to someone who has never suffered for Christ’s sake. John Willfinger (1942) was one of these men. Serving the Lord in Borneo he was working on translating the Bible into the native language of the Murut people. The Japanese Empire invaded though, and took a strong stance against foreigners, making John and his fellow missionaries part of the ‘most wanted’ list. Willfinger was captured and executed, but it was what was written down in his Bible that I find most enlightening and inspiring. He wrote a poem about how he knew Christ, and that Christ was no mere man to him. One line states “No mere man can my strength sustain And drive away all fear and pain. Holding me close in his embrace When death and I stand face to face. Then all that God could ever be The unseen Christ will be to me.”. Under this he wrote, “Hallelujah, this is real.” (Foxe, pg. 235). In the face of death, John was comforted by Jesus, who could no longer be only a mere man to him, and not only that he was overwhelmed with the assurance that this was all real. That says something, since there are few who can make such claims of certainty in the face of death.
It is an honor and a blessing to be counted worthy to be persecuted for Christ’s sake. This idea is something that the modern western church has lost. Though we think it an honor for others to die for Christ, we would be slow to look forward to it ourselves. I understand and do not say this callously, since this has been a challenge to my heart as well and in all honesty I do not think I am there yet. The truth is that the Bible calls us to no longer live for ourselves, but to live for Christ, even if that costs us our lives themselves. (2 Cor. 5:14-15). Like everyone else, I do not want to die the violent death of a martyr, but I trust the Lord, and if it is what He wants them I am willing. Overall, in reading Foxe’s Voices of the Martyrs, I can most definitively add it to my recommended reading list. Furthermore, I have finally been able to verbalize what I had a feeling was true all along; that if I do not die a martyr then I am at least called to live as one.
© 2012, Matt Camphuis all rights reserved.